This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Think of Italian wine and what do you see? Something deep purple or dusky crimson?
While it's true that Italy makes far more red than white, the dramatically improved whites of the country that so often produces more wine than any other are not to be ignored – especially when they can offer so many intriguing flavours well off the beaten track.
Italy is recovering from a dubious love affair with oaky Chardonnay and is now celebrating its differences - indigenous grape varieties such as Arneis, Falanghina, Fiano, Friulano, Greco, Grechetto, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla, Verdicchio, Vermentino – as well as showing admirable competence in making fruity, refreshing, specifically regional examples of the well-known international varietals, and an increasing proportion of blends.
For years Friuli (or Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, to give it its full administrative name) in the far north east was the acknowledged king of Italian white wine but producers there have been finding it increasingly difficult to sustain their relatively high prices (from £8 to well over £20 a bottle in the UK) in the face of competition from other regions now that they no longer have the monopoly on making fresh, fruity dry whites.
Their chief competitor within Italy is Alto Adige, the Italian region carved out of the Austrian Tyrol to their west. Like Friuli, Alto Adige (or Südtirol as it is known by its many German-speaking inhabitants) specialises in unoaked or only very lightly oaked, aromatic, pure-fruited wines made from well known international vine varieties. The headily aromatic Gewurztraminer is thought to have originated in the village of Tramin (Termeno in Italian) here but it is Pinot Grigio that is, for some inexplicable reason, the international favourite. "The world is screaming for Pinot Grigio. I don't know why," I was told by the owner of Collavini, one of Friuli's biggest producers. Indeed Pinot Grigio is the elephant in any Italian white wine room. So inordinately popular is it that it is remarkable that anyone bothers to make a good quality version.
But whereas 20 years ago wine producers in Friuli tended to be besotted by the international varieties such as Pinot Grigio, and especially Pinot Bianco because of its similarity to Chardonnay, they increasingly value such local specialities as Ribolla Gialla, (Tocai) Friulano, Verduzzo, Malvasia and the sweet wine rarity Picolit, realising like their counterparts the world over that it is these that lend the region its distinction.
The two big white wine denominations of Friuli are Collio (literally 'hills') and Colli Orientali del Friuli (more hills, eastern this time). There are parallels here between the twin appellations of the upper Loire, Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, in that no-one can give an absolutely definitive answer to the question of what makes them different. The soils are very similar. Temperatures can be a bit warmer in southern Collio and the wines therefore a bit more concentrated. Colli Orientali can be wetter than Collio, although neither zone is particularly dry - and even southern Collio is too wet for Cabernet Sauvignon. That said, 2006 and 2007 have been particularly good for both Friuli and Alto Adige.
Alto Adige's vineyards are at considerably higher altitudes than most of Friuli's and you can taste it in the wines. Both regions benefit from warm days and cool summer nights but the Friulians claim their wines last longer in bottle than those of most other regions. Wines such as Schiopetto's 2001 Pinot Bianco tasted a few months ago certainly demonstrated that some Friuli whites have an unusual ability to age gracefully.
On the other hand, the winningly round and accessible wines made much further south from grapes such as Fiano and Falanghina are arguably flashier and easier to like when young. This third cluster of Italian white wine excellence centres on Campania around Naples, where both Falanghina and Fiano vine varieties are capable of making really interesting, quite powerful white wines. Fiano's charms are so indisputable that it has been adopted by Sicilian wine producers such as Planeta, which makes a particularly long-lived, full-bodied example (and it has also been planted in Australia by Italian varietal specialists Coriole of McLaren Vale).
But a country as varied as Italy can field scores of other, idiosyncratic whites such as the best, and remarkably long-lived, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo, Petite Arvine in the Valle d'Aosta, Pigato from the Cinqueterra and zesty Sardinian Vermentino.
I have listed the most impressive Italian whites to have come my way in recent months. Prices vary enormously, from Tesco's own label Sicilian Fiano made by the Settesoli co-op at £5.99 to Pieropan's La Rocca Soave at £24 from Jeroboams. Perhaps the best buys, apart from the Tesco own-label, are the Inama Vin Soave at £9.50 from Stone Vine & Sun (£12.49 or £9.99 if two bottles are bought from Majestic) and the Pinot Grigios from Necotium and Elena Walch at £7.95 from Berry Bros and £11 from H&H Bancroft respectively.
All of this concerns only the dry white wines of Italy. Italians are also responsible for some of the most appetising and intriguing sweet white wines in the world, from delicately grapey Moscato d'Asti with just 5.5% alcohol to wonderfully complex wines made from grapes whose sugars have been concentrated over weeks spent in special drying chambers. Vin Santo, Recioto di Soave and a host of Moscato Passitos will have to wait for another day.
SOME FAVOURITE ITALIAN WHITES
Baron de Pauli, Exilissi Gewurztraminer 2006 Alto Adige (£20.99 TenGreenBottles.com)
Erst & Neue, Puntay Gewurztraminer 2006 Alto Adige (about £17 New Generation Wines from Sep 2008)
H Lun, Sandbichler Gewurztraminer 2006 Alto Adige (no UK importer)
Cantina Terlan Sauvignon Quarz 2006 Alto Adige (Wood Winters Wines and Whiskies of Scotland, Philglas and Swiggot of London, Experience Wines of Truro, Fields & Fawcette of York)
Tiefenbrunner, Feldmarschall von Fenner (Müller Thurgau) 2007 IGT (Armit)
Tramin, Nussbaumer Gewurztraminer 2006 Alto Adige (www.novumwines.com)
Cantina Valle Isarco Kerner 2007 Alto Adige (£10.99 Caves de Pyrene plus Green and Blue, East Dulwich and Everywine.co.uk)
Elena Walch Pinot Grigio 2007 Alto Adige (£11 www.bancroftwines.com)
Canus, Jasmine 2006, Pinot Grigio and Friulano 2006 (Berry Bros are selling the 2005s)
I Clivi 2003 Colli Orientali del Fruili: Galea and Brazan (approx £18 Fields Morris & Verdin)
Collavini, Broy Bianco 2006 Collio (Hallgarten and Alvini)
Livio Felluga, Friulano 2006 Colli Orientali del Friuli and Pinot Grigio Riserva (£19 Bennetts of Chipping Camden and Halifax Wine Co)
Gradisciutta, Bratinis 2006 Collio
Lis Neris Pinot Grigio 2006 and Gris 2006 (£12.95 and £16.95 respectively Berry Bros)
Necotium, Berrys' Pinot Grigio 2006 IGT Venezia (£7.95 Bery Bros)
Primosic, Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia 2005 Collio, Sauvignon Gmanje 2006 Collio and Klin Riserva 2004 Collio (1999s at the Bianca trading Company, Chester)
Ronchi di Cialla, Cialla Ribolla Gialla 2005 Colli Orientali del Friuli (no known UK importer)
Schiopetto, Friulano 2006 Collio and Schiopetto, Mario Schiopetto Bianco 2006 Friuli (£20 Lea & Sandeman; Nickolls & Perks, Clarion Wines)
Vignai da Duline, Tocai Friulano 2006 Grave del Friuli (Raeburn of Edinburgh)
Villa Russiz, Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Collio (£14.82 Bibendum Wine)
Inama, Vin Soave 2006 Soave Classicoand Vigneti di Foscarino 2005 Soave Classico (£9.50 Stone Vin & Sun, £9.95 Majestic if two bottles are bought and approx £14 respectively - imported by Winetraders of Oxford)
La Monacesca, Mirum 2004 Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva (£13.50 Bacchus Wine, plus Cadman and Berry Bros - imported by Winetraders)
Leonildo Pieropan, La Rocca 2005 Soave (£18.65 Noel Young, £21.50 Jeroboams and others)
Planeta, Cometa 2005 IGT Sicilia (£20 Fareham Wine Cellar)
Terredora, Terre di Dora 2007 Fiano di Avellino (£14.45 Jeroboams) and Terredora Falanghina 2006 IGT Campania
Tesco Finest Fiano 2007 IGT Sicilia (£5.99 Tesco)
La Zerba, Terrarossa 2006 Gavi di Tassarolo (about £10 Oxford Wine Company, Fortnum & Mason, Uncorked, Laithwaites)